Fans are comparing him to dead rock stars of the past. Commentators are claiming that his demise stands as the perfect symbol for a generation marked by lowered expectations and a nihilistic world view. Pundits are picking apart his lyrics in search of clues to his desperate final solution. And scenesters fond of black clothing and extreme poses are suggesting that his method of departure from this particular reality proves that he believed in the rebel's favorite adage: Die young and leave a good-looking corpse.
But Kurt Cobain, the gifted leader of the Seattle-based rock trio called Nirvana, was surely not a pretty sight when his remains were discovered on Friday morning, April 8. That's because Cobain used a shotgun to end his life, splattering his precious bodily fluids all over the room he occupied. Having grown tired of the world around him, he apparently decided to punctuate the note he left behind with blood and brains. Only by flinging himself into a whirling airplane propeller could he have made a bigger mess.
It's impossible to know precisely what Cobain was thinking at the moment he pulled the trigger, but that hasn't stopped a great many of those who were touched by his music from speculating. And as one might expect at a time of shock and grief, most of the motives ascribed to Cobain thus far have been strikingly noble. Some have suggested that he was unwilling to sell out to a corporate music industry built on compromise and hypocrisy, while others believe he was so true to his manic-depressive muse that he felt compelled to follow his art to its logical conclusion.
What these appraisals don't take into account, however, is that suicide is an essentially selfish act usually committed by people who aren't looking past their own noses at the times of their deaths. Cobain fit this description perfectly: He admitted to self-destructive mood swings and suicidal thoughts, and his idea of dealing with the chronic, agonizing stomach problems that plagued him for years was to treat himself with heroin. He had his reasons to stay alive--fame, fortune, respect, a baby daughter (Frances Bean) and wife Courtney Love, whose new album with her band Hole is called Live Through This--but he must have felt that extinguishing his hurt, mental and physical, took precedence over all of them. Anyone who believes Cobain's decision established his integrity and artistic credibility is only deluding himself.
How, then, should we remember Cobain? The most obvious answer can be found in the music he left behind. Nirvana's first album, Bleach, produced on the cheap by Seattle's own Jack Endino and released on the Sub Pop imprint, was no landmark, but Nevermind, the followup issued by Geffen, certainly was. The album was filled with memorable songs--"Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Come As You Are," "In Bloom," "Lithium"--delivered with passion, intelligence and desperation. As Cobain told Rolling Stone writer David Fricke late last year, the musical style developed by him and his compatriots (bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl) played on dynamics; listeners were seduced by modest, melodic verses rife with pop virtues before being bludgeoned by powerhouse choruses. Cobain characteristically saw this approach as formulaic, and maybe it was, but it was also damned effective, drawing in folks who'd previously been resistant to punk rock without alienating those who had loved the stuff for years. More important, Cobain topped the material with searing, instantly identifiable vocals, and lyrics that mated graveyard humor with personal confessions of the sort even the most honest singer-songwriters likely would keep to themselves. He put his pain on display for our entertainment.
After releasing Incesticide, a stopgap record made up of musical odds and ends, Nirvana made In Utero, a disc as provocative as its predecessors but considerably more challenging. The difficulty Cobain had in dealing with the acclaim earned by Nevermind was exemplifed in the grating sound mix whipped up by producer/provocateur/loudmouth Steve Albini. Cobain literally seemed to be testing his audience, determining for himself which fans understood his music and which ones had jumped on the Nirvana bandwagon simply because doing so seemed fashionable. The single "Heart-Shaped Box" was a caustic valentine--in it, Cobain says he wants to eat someone's cancer--and the other material was relentlessly corrosive. "Rape Me," for instance, was an antirape song that offended feminists as incapable of discerning irony as those critics who accused Randy Newman of racism for using the word "nigger" in his Seventies-era antiracism song "Rednecks."
Contrary to the image presented by Nirvana-heads after Cobain's death, not everyone passed the test. In Utero entered the sales charts at number one but didn't stay there long. When it failed to stir Nevermind-esque excitement, Nirvana scheduled a major tour that did well in some cities, poorly in others. Denver fell into the latter category: In spite of the presence on the bill of another terrific band, the Breeders, the Nirvana gig last December at the Coliseum (capacity 5,000) was far from packed.
In spite of the moderate turnout, Nirvana put on an exciting show spiced with indications of Cobain's artistic dissatisfaction with his band's current direction. An extra guitarist, ex-Germs member Pat Smear, made the set's punky moments punkier, but Cobain seemed most interested in acoustic interludes featuring a guest cellist, Lori Goldston. The crowd was not enthralled by such moments, but these softer stylings clearly prefigured Cobain's creative mindset. Soon Nirvana, supplemented by two members of the Meat Puppets, could be seen on an episode of MTV Unplugged, and Cobain claimed in interviews that he hoped his group's next disc would sound less like Nirvana and more like R.E.M.
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None of that matters now. After a bogus period of alleged company mourning, we'll no doubt be inundated by purchaseable Nirvana rarities--look for Nirvana Unplugged to be in your friendly neighborhood record store in a matter of months, to be followed by Nirvana Live and, probably, Kurt Cobain's Greatest Answering Machine Messages. Others apt to cash in are Michael Azerrad, whose authorized Nirvana biography, Come As You Are, was a sales stiff upon its initial release, and Fricke, who, like Azerrad, was on MTV last Friday calling Cobain the John Lennon of his generation. This makes for a good marketing hook, but the comparison is otherwise strained: After all, Lennon had a two-decade-long career and was far better known to nonrock fans than Cobain, as Dan Rather made clear during his halting, condescending delivery of Cobain's mini-obituary on the CBS Evening News last Friday. In fact, the mainstream media's coverage of the Cobain suicide has been embarrassing in the extreme. For proof, look no further than the Denver Post, which on April 9 accompanied its article about Cobain with a sidebar listing "Deaths in the Pop-Music World"--Jim Croce and Peter Ham of Badfinger made the list, but Jim Morrison did not. The next day, in a preprinted section, the Post ran a USA Today story on the upcoming Lollapalooza festival that stated that Nirvana wouldn't be on the bill "due to lead singer Kurt Cobain's ill health" (the Post printed a correction of this error in a subsequent issue).
In the meantime, Courtney Love--who appeared on tape reading portions of Cobain's suicide note before thousands who attended a memorial in Seattle on Sunday--is being painted by some sexist cretins as a Yoko Ono type who drove Kurt to kill himself. Try as she might, she'll never be able to get out from under Cobain's shadow, and neither will baby Frances, now likely doomed to live out her life as a punk Lisa Marie Presley. As for Cobain, look for him to become the subject of more books, countless magazine and tabloid articles and a movie or two, and to have his face plastered all over T-shirts and posters that will make his death seem as romantic as the bullet in Ernest Hemingway's head.
Romantic it's not. It's a waste--nothing more and nothing less.